On my way to meet my granddaughter Leslie for lunch last week, I slipped a snapshot into my purse. Cleaning up my archaic photo albums—things no one has these days; it’s all in the cloud—I’d found duplicates. Most I’d tossed, but this one made me think: “Leslie will like it.” The photo was taken in 1975, at Great Falls Park, Virginia. Leslie and I smile at the camera: she is three and in my lap, two fingers in her mouth.
When I handed it to her, Les exclaimed, “Grandma, you were beautiful.”
“Let me see,” I thought. “Was I really?” But I’d already studied the photo, admiring that young woman’s hair, her slender arms. She thought her arms were fat: what an idiot. I can show her fat arms. She was far from the person I am now and yet, through all her issues and mistakes, she led to me.
I like 70 as the beginning of old age in our time. A financial advisor discussing saving for travel said the 60s are go-go, the 70s slow-go and the 80s no-go. So far, for me he was right. The sixties were fine. I worked right through half of mine, did some domestic traveling, fit in a fast-paced trip to Spain just after the decade ended. Now a plane trip leaves me tired and I need to lie down. The seventies: slow-go.
Conversations about health—or the lack thereof—happen daily in your seventies, it seems. These chronic headaches and plugged ears I wake with, over two years now. I’ve seen the entire medical establishment and no relief. So many friends and family in my age group deal with worse: cancer, COPD, macular degeneration, disintegrating heart valves. My husband had an amputation last year, an enormous life changer. How could we not talk about such things constantly?
That we do is partly our fascination with flaws: the dent in the new fridge, the mole on your cheek, the crack in the ceiling, your eyes go right to it, every time and if you can’t see it, you peer closer or change your angle, so you can: “ah, there it is,” you exclaim with satisfaction.
When I hear from former Spanish students, the first thing is an apology for what a lousy student he/she was or, “I’m sorry I was so much trouble in your class.”
A thirty-year-old man stands before me, apologizing for adolescent failures. Behind his face I see the dim shadow of a boy who was once my student, but beyond that, remember nothing. My own failures of that time I could easily list for you.
Partly it’s that these are age-related ailments, things we still have no good cures for, and those of us who’ve been blessed with health and vigor until now, discover these slowly creeping chronic complaints like rude awakenings, insults, indignities. Oh, not ME. And what do you mean, you can’t fix it? I say I’ve been waking with these headaches for two years and the doctor says, “I have patients who’ve been having them for ten.” Helpful.
Riding a bus from downtown Chicago to our friend’s lakefront apartment, three well-dressed old ladies sat behind us, scarcely taking a breath, relentlessly chronicling their doctor visits and symptoms and ailments. I was in my go-go sixties at the time, not admitting to being old, mentioned this bus experience to our friend, who sighed and said, “that’s all they ever talk about.”
My friend Toni says, “let’s not go there. If we begin talking about our aches and pains we’ll never stop.”
…I find that age has bestowed a kind of comfortable anonymity…age may sideline, but it also confers a sort of neutrality; you are no longer out there in the thick of things, but able to stand back, observe, consider. —Penelope Lively
I understand Penelope perfectly, because she’s a writer and obviously an introvert as well. Only an introvert could find not being “in the thick of things” a delightful position. We engage in more extroverted lives when young, but old age is a harmonious time for introverted writers. We discover that noisy restaurants upset our digestions and worsen our chronic headaches, that crowds give us a rash, there is nothing at a big box store we need to buy, and travel is only pleasant if we’re the only ones taking in the spectacular view.
An occasional visit with a beloved grandchild, a weekend with no engagements, a walk with a friend, an evening with a choice of books and The Daily Show, mornings with nothing to do but write: I’ll have two of each please.
On the way home from seeing Leslie, I thought about the long, switchback road we travel from youth to age. I remembered being perhaps 22, at the kitchen table of the old house in Queens with Katarina Dubrava Keuning, my grandmother. I turned the soft black pages, looking at sepia photos from some ancient era: my grandmother, perhaps 20, lately off the boat and Ellis Island.
“Nana, I exclaimed, “you were beautiful.”